Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Scott Lynch's Exposition Epic

Scott Lynch, The Republic of Thieves

Career swindlers Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen have made many enemies in the city-state of Camorr. But a junta of wizards offers them sanctuary if they help throw an election. Ancient Kashain’s rulers maintain power by keeping secrets and buying massive conspiracies, so Locke and Jean shouldn’t act surprised when the city proves to be a dagger pointed at their hearts. What kind of dagger, though, is an ever-shifting mystery.

If I had to describe Scott Lynch’s third Gentlemen Bastards novel in one word, I’d pick “long.” It’s physically imposing, at over 650 pages, but that’s fine. As James A. Michener observed beaucoups years ago, books’ ability to tell epic stories with generational scope remains their chief advantage over cinema. But while it starts strong, it eventually resembles an uphill slog through a molasses swamp, in Wellingtons full of superglue.

Locke and Jean are resilient losers, the Captain Mal and Zoe of heroic fantasy. Their sheer refusal to surrender to normality makes them staunchly heroic, especially when the law proves arbitrary and oppressive. Locke, always shrewd and quick with a sarcastic rejoinder, thinks he’s grown scars over his heart, but remains capable of humane insight. Jean restrains Locke’s often fatalistic tendencies; between them, he’s the one who wants to live.

Lynch’s writing has drawn comparisons to, and praises from, George RR Martin, in both its sweeping scope and foreboding tone. But Lynch’s actual prose more closely resembles British author M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, and he also includes occasional nods to other renowned fantasists, both point-blank and obliquely. I counted Fritz Leiber, CS Lewis, and Joss Whedon, among others. He’s a portmanteau of historic and contemporary sword-n-sorcery fantasy.

Unfortunately, Lynch’s storytelling style visibly mimics daytime television and X-Men comics, stumbling forward episodically, propelled by successions of cliffhangers and shocks. He intersperses the characters’ present, which unfolds with remarkable lack of haste, with scenes from his heroes’ history, contextualizing the suffering they now endure. Which would be fine, but he lampshades his big reveals so blatantly that, by the time they arrive, we’ve grown bored waiting.

When Lynch appropriates narrative cues from existing stories, he takes necessary gambles. Seasoned genre readers may recognize hints of Leiber’s Grey Mouser or Harrison’s Lord tegeus-Cromis, and cheer the knowledge that we can join a story contiguous with existing fantasy. But we pay for that familiarity when his narrative divulgences don’t differ sufficiently from his archetypes. This book openly courts readers who don’t like surprises.

Which is a shame, because for all his predictable plotting, Lynch’s prose is remarkably good. Locke Lamora uses impudent charm and gallows wit to extract other characters’ deeper secrets, while Jean translates suppressed rage into compelling action. Lynch’s incisive, dynamic writing propels action with such understated drive, and surprising humor, that even this jaded reader didn’t notice how many pages had passed without anything actually happening. At first.

Until I did. Somewhere around this massive, brick-like book’s one-third mark, I noticed Lynch was still setting the scene. Really. Well past page 200, Lynch kept spooning out exposition so slow and erratic, we practically hear the soap opera organ music. Yet his actual story remained in future tense, while the flashback scenes portended revelations in Locke and Jean’s present. Free semi-spoiler: love which goes unrequited long enough becomes hate.

Remember, in episodic drama, if characters mention some dead companion often enough, events will prove that character still alive. Or, since this is fantasy, undead. If characters hate some villain with sufficient passion, the person our heroes absolutely need to turn the tide will have some unacknowledged connection to that villain. And every question the MacGuffin character answers will omit some information our protagonists desperately need.

Lynch, sadly, exploits all these tropes. Amid his funny, grim, energetic flourishes, Lynch and his characters do little we haven’t seen before. Which perhaps isn’t bad; some people like the package tour, where everything’s pre-screened to guarantee customers find nothing shocking or unnerving on their trip. If that’s you, Lynch wraps a relatively familiar fantasy in eloquent prose and delivers it, like the stork, ready-made to your doorstep.

But that’s not me, and maybe not you. To paraphrase Doctor Who, I want to get lost on foreign streets, use wrong verbs, kiss the wrong people. Lynch keeps promising such jarring exhilaration imminently, but always shifts it into the future. His actual product cloyingly resembles every paperback fantasy from the last half-century, never really shedding its prototypes. And we never end up feeling we’ve really gone anywhere.

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